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Review – The Verdict – Middle Ground Theatre at the Floral Pavilion New Brighton

AMONGST their broad repertoire Middle Ground Theatre Company boasts quite a number of murder mysteries, so it is fitting that they should bookend this with that other popular staple, the courtroom drama. It was an inspired choice to select Barry Reed’s bestselling novel The Verdict for a stage treatment, and Margaret May Hobbs’ adaptation is every bit as successful in dramatizing it as the well-known film version.

Originally toured in 2017, the production is enjoying an 18 venue revival with a new cast, which visits New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion this week.

Trial lawyer Frank Galvin’s career is all but over. Shambolic and fuelled by alcohol, he is thrown the lifeline of a case that could prove his savior – a medical malpractice suit that is pretty much unwinnable but likely to settle out of court. This could be very lucrative both for Galvin and his client, the mother of a woman who has been left in a coma at the hands of doctors Crowley and Towler. In what at first seems an act of professional suicide, Galvin turns down a huge offer from the defense team, deciding to go to court. He has smelled a cover up and is determined to fight for justice.

Very much in the classic format of the likes of Perry Mason, Act I gives us all the background to the characters and the case in question, while Act II takes us into the courtroom itself, where the odds seem very much stacked in the favour of the defendants and their top-dollar legal team. Continuing to investigate as the trial progresses, Galvin fights on to the bitter end.

Jason Merrels is a great piece of casting for Frank Galvin. He manages to combine world-weary shabbiness with an air of intrinsic dignity, and we cannot help but believe in his abilities from the outset. There are a number of fine supporting performances amongst the large cast, notably Jason Wilson and the director Michael Lunney as the accused doctors, and Richard Walsh who doubles up as the local Bishop, Father Brophy and as Judge Eldredge Sweeney. More problematic is Sarah Shelton, whose portrayal of the plaintiff’s mother is heartfelt but barely audible.

Audibility, in fact, is the biggest challenge for this production. The set for Act I has a great deal of open space, as it plays several settings, and this leads to a loss of sound into the wings and flytower. Boundary microphones are clearly in place on the stage apron, but there is no evidence of their use. Things improve somewhat in Act II, when the courtroom set is much more enclosed, helping to reflect the sound forwards. That said, press night is on the first in this venue, so hopefully efforts will be made to rectify the issue at later performances. Here lies one of the perils of touring a show to so many very different venues, each of which has its own unique acoustic.

Nonetheless, the show is extremely well paced and remains gripping. Both acts are lengthy, allowing for the traditional slow buildup of tension as events gradually unfold, but both Hobbs’ script and Lunney’s direction maintain a good tempo throughout, ensuring that the story has time to breathe but pushing forward at the right moments. This is, after all, a drama, not an action thriller.

The Verdict plays at the Floral Pavilion until Saturday, before continuing its tour at venues across England and Ireland until July.

Star rating – 3.5 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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